We checked out of the reasonably priced hotel in Qinguancun that we had found the day before and pointed our bikes towards Kazakhstan. It was only 30km but it was cold and raining, we had our waterproofs on for the first time in ages. As we rode I contemplated our last day in China, a country that had surprised both of us from the start. We had quickly fallen in love with the country and the people, and the cycling and travelling potential here is almost endless. For me, China is one of my favourite countries that I have cycled and travelled in and I look forward to having more adventures here in the future.
We arrived at the border a little after lunch and once we found the right gate to go through and fended off the rather keen money changers we said our last goodbye to China. The process was quite straight forward and we were soon cycling into Kazakhstan. We were met by our first Kazakh official who after a few seconds broke a smile and pointed us in the right direction. We took our bikes into the main passenger area, filled out our entry cards, got the passports stamped and managed to wheel the bikes through without unloading them and having everything scanned by the x-ray machine.
A new country, a new language and everything was unfamiliar once again. It still amazes me that you can travel only a few kms and feel totally different. It leaves me feeling a little lost and and excited at the same time. I try and remind myself that a little effort, learning the language now from the start will go a long way in the future.
The town we had arrived into was a little sparse to say the least, compared the Chinese side. We were hoping for somewhere to stay but there was one small shop, a cash machine and a small kiosk to by mobile sim cards. We got some cash and cycled on debating about what to do. It was a little late into the day to get to Zharkent, the next major town 30km but perhaps there was more further on. We kept cycling, Liz was cold from all the stopping and starting in the rain so we kept moving. There were plenty of camping opportunities and we had pretty much decided that we were going to camp when we rounded a bend and got to another check point. We passed through without incident, just beyond was a petrol station and a large square building that we hoped might have somewhere to sleep or eat at least.
An hour later having made friends with a few people who could speak English and help translate, my Chinese was no good here, we were sat in front of two plates of hot chicken and big hunks of bread. As we ate we debated about what to do next, camp in the cold and the wet, or stay in the ridiculously expensive hotel above the restaurant. The lure of a dry warm place was to much for Liz so we checked into the hotel stripped of the wet clothes and enjoyed a hot shower.
The next day the sun was shining and things were looking a lot nicer, we had eggs and bread for breakfast and cycled the 30kms to Zarkhent were there would be internet, shops, people and we could get sorted for the 300km ride to Almaty.
The ride was pretty easy we passed through a few small villages on the way there and were thankful for our mirrors as old ashfelt road was a little bumpy at the edges so cycling Mongolian style in the middle of the road was much more preferable when the cars and trucks allowed.
Zharkent is a small town but it had everything we needed. A friendly English student helped us find a cheap hotel and we sat down to make a plan for the rest of the day. Firstly we needed more money, things were a lot more expensive compared to China. We found the ATM, internet cafe and market and celebrated with a kebab and a few shots of vodka courtesy of the guys that were at the same kebab stand as us.
The next day we got up early and hoped to get a good start, a puncture on my bike and then a problem with the hub dashed our plans. We also remembered that on the back of our arrival cards it said that we had to register within 5 days of arrival. By the time the bike was fixed up we were hungry again so opted for some food before checking the internet to see if the 5 days were more of a guide line than a rule. We cycled to the centre of the town and struggled to find a place to eat. It seemed that every place was closed for a wedding or private party. We were just about to give up but the last restaurant we tried happened to have an English speaking employee who pointed us in the direction of a good restaurant that he assured us would be open. Just as we were about to set off we were asked to wait a moment. The young guy came back and presented us with two large bottles of coke. A gift from our village he said. We thanked him a lot and waved goodbye. We arrived at the other restaurant that we were amazed we had missed and were greeted by a guy who spoke good English. We have been expecting you he said, please come and sit down and we can help you order some food. The guy that had just given us the coke had phoned ahead to the other restaurant.
We made friends with the restaurant owner and had a good meal, as we were leaving we asked if they knew if we could register in this town. It turned out the restaurant owner was not from Kazakhstan but Uzbekistan, he said that we really had to register in 5 days and that the nearest place was in Almaty. We were already on day two in the country and it would take us at least 5 days to cycle to Almaty. We pondered the dilema, cycle and hope that they don’t really care but risk a fine or some other problems, or work out a way to get to Almaty. The latter was not really an appealing option as this was going to be our only cycling in Kazakhstan. We had decide to take a plane to Kiev after Almaty as it was the cheapest way to make up some distance. Not travelling by bike was something I always wanted to avoid but we have to be back in England at the end of January latest. We decided to spend more time in Mongolia but the trade off for this was having to take a train or plane for some of the next part of the journey. I was also keen to get to know the country a little bit better as after only two days, the friendly people were making me feel relaxed and keen to explore.
The owner of the restaurant then told us he was going to Almaty later that day as he was flying home for his brothers wedding, he reckoned that there might be room for us and our bikes in his car, if we would be interested. With the fear of a big fine and no other information we gratefully accepted his offer and a few hours later we were on the way to Almaty.
It got dark quickly, mid way we stop at the small mountain pass that was covered in snow and apparently not far from a beautiful canyon. I wished I had done a little more research about this route and country before had so that we might have had enough time to cycle.
We arrived in Almaty at 11pm and our new friends found us a place to stay. Hotels are really expensive here and renting an 1 bed apartment is actually a cheaper option. We paid up for two nights and hoped that our warm showers host would be able to accommodate us a few day earlier. We said goodbye to our new friends and settled in for the night
The next day we walked out of the apartment block on to a main road, we had no idea where we were. This didn’t seem to bother us at all, and it was easy enough to find a shop selling a map and then navigate our way to the immigration office to complete our registration. We found the immigration office and started to fill in the forms until we got to address. We had no idea of the full address of where we were staying, we tried just putting the street address down but they did not like it. We opted to go home and come back the next day.
That evening we got in touch with our warms showers host, he was happy to host us from tomorrow and gave us his address for our forms. The next day we submitted our forms in the morning and by lunch time we were cycling to the other side of town to find Taz our warm showers host.